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14 Jun 2007 : Column 903

Mr. Syms: We all know that a number of buildings are in a state of disrepair and would fall under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. It is important to exempt them, and we want that to be clear by stating it in the Bill. Sometimes local authorities or a range of organisations have to give grants to do up such properties. If they were not exempt, renovating them and ensuring that they are saved, salvaged and enjoyed by future generations would be a far more difficult task.

Mr. Knight: Surely in the example given one would not need to exempt a property specifically if the ownership is unknown, because presumably no one is paying the rates.

Mr. Syms: My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and shows his experience as a Member of this House. Nevertheless, it is important to have paragraph (d) in the Bill.

Paragraph (e) is equally important. We are blessed with a lot of monuments and archaeological areas. Many of us enjoy watching people on television digging up part of our towns to see what our ancestors built. The exemptions in the amendment are important. All of those who enjoy our heritage would demand that the Government include such exemptions in the Bill. It is important to consider paragraph (e), and I hope that the Minister will say much more about it when he responds.

Paragraph (f) deals with the qualifying industrial hereditament, and proposed paragraph (g) refers to a rateable value of less than £2,200, which is the cut-off point for business rates.

I do not think that there is any great disagreement between the Opposition and the Government on those things, but there is uncertainty. We pretty much know for a fact that we are going to have a change of Prime Minister, and that the Government will be reshuffled between the time the Bill and the amendment are considered and when the various regulations and statutory instruments are introduced. Therefore, it is important to put some of the exemptions on the face of the Bill so that the rating legislation landscape that people have been used to is not changed. No doubt the Minister will have an opportunity to consider and answer my specific points.

Paragraph (h) sets out an important exemption. We all know the difficulty that arises if a relative is deceased or if someone has responsibility for dealing with a friend’s estate. The exemption should be on the face of the Bill, and made clear so that those who are in that situation and worrying about the Bill are not caused undue hardship or given undue concerns.

There are many important and intricate points to the amendment. I am glad that the Committee is listening to my argument and that it will have a much fuller debate about those things. The range of issues is amazing. Rating legislation is highly complex, and we need only look at the algebra in clause 1 to realise how complex this Bill is. I have great sympathy for the civil servants who must—no doubt very efficiently—deal with the legislation and advise the Minister. The Minister’s contribution to rating reform will no doubt prove legendary. Much of this sort of legislation stays on the statute book for a very long time. As
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amendment No. 6 demonstrates, it tends to be “a little bit here, a little bit there”, but it builds up into important case law.

The Bill involves a good deal of money. As I said earlier, business rates raise half as much as corporation tax, and are often the subject of disputes leading to legal actions and tribunal hearings. It is therefore important to make exemptions clear in the Bill rather than awaiting the uncertainty of regulations at a later stage, when another Minister may be in charge.

The Insolvency Act 1986 is important legislation, and is undoubtedly part of the reason why we won the 1987 general election. Insolvency means a traumatic time for many people, and those people need reassurance. Although I was a county councillor at the time and not yet a Member of Parliament, I remember the 1986 Act as ground-breaking legislation. I hope the Minister will accept the provision in paragraph (i), or, failing that, will explain in detail why he cannot do so.

Mr. Goodwill: The provision concerns not just those who become insolvent but their creditors. After the event, the bills that come in will reduce the amount of money available for distribution to those who are already hard hit.

Mr. Syms: I have tried, in my inadequate way, to explain the importance of that aspect. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the breadth of the impact of insolvency on members of the community, including creditors.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): The argument can be taken a stage further. It is already unacceptable that the state insists on being paid first, before those who may be in a much worse position. This is another example of circumstances in which the state’s grabbing comes before the needs of the individual.

Mr. Syms: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. There is concern about the impact of that arrangement on the community, including our constituents.

Paragraph (j) refers to the Deeds of Arrangement Act 1914. The year, of course, was seminal, yet the imperial Parliament of the time passed the Act. No doubt the legislation was debated fully; no doubt it embodied the hopes and aspirations of many people. Now, 93 years later, we are contemplating inclusion of this provision not in the Bill, but possibly in a statutory instrument or regulation. The Act has stood the test of time. Perhaps the Minister will explain why what some have described as key legislation should not apply to the Bill.

1.45 pm

Paragraph (k) returns us to the Insolvency Act 1986. The Government have not done justice to that important Act in their one-clause Bill—a Bill which, however, is not small in terms of the money that it will raise: £1 billion. That is why a clear exemption is needed.

We can only marvel at the number of hours that Parliament must have spent considering all the legislation to which we have referred today. In those
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days there was no programming. Debates were often open-ended, and most parts of the legislation would have been considered in great detail by many people.

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. I do not think we really need a history of the progress of the 1986 Act, although it is relevant to the amendment.

Mr. Syms: Thank you for your guidance, Mrs. Heal.

I think it important to include as much information as possible in Bills of this kind, given their complexity and major financial implications, so that people know exactly where they are.

Mr. Greg Knight: So far my hon. Friend has taken me with him, and I am minded to support the amendment. I agree that exemptions should be made clear in the Bill. However, I am slightly puzzled by the wording of paragraph (k). Why should a company that is being wound up voluntarily be exempt? The owners of a company may well wind it up voluntarily to avoid paying their dues under the Bill, then form a new company with a different name and effectively continue to trade as before.

Mr. Syms: My right hon. Friend’s intervention shows his experience as both a Member of Parliament and a business man. As we all know, people sometimes misuse legislation, but most of those affected by the Insolvency Act are in that position involuntarily rather than voluntarily. A winding-up order is usually made because the company is owed a lot of money and is trying to get some of it back, or to put a company out of business. However, I do not want to digress, Mrs. Heal.

Paragraph (k) shows how complex and difficult insolvency law is, and how it interacts with the problem of business rates. The Bill is being progressed fairly speedily so our discussions are time-limited, but it is important that we debate this matter fully. The Minister must respond in detail on amendment No. 6. I hope that when he replies, he will talk about the Insolvency Act 1986 and the Deeds of Arrangement Act 1914, and why he thinks that the amendment should not be made. We need answers. It is important that the Government clearly explain their position. Why have they introduced what is essentially a one-clause Bill? Why are they not prepared to include our proposals on this complex subject in the Bill?

The amendment would also add:

There has usually been an exemption for a property that is occupied for only a short period. I suspect that the Government would prefer to deal with that matter by statutory instrument and regulation, rather than include it in the Bill. I would like the Minister to explain where the Government stand on that matter and why, as it is important.

The issues and concerns that I am raising are key and require deep thought. It is a pity that there was no
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consultation—I have said that before, but it bears repeating. If we had had a full consultation, the public and the business community, and those affected by specific aspects of the Bill—such as accountants, surveyors or lawyers—would have had a much fuller opportunity to feed in their views. That would have given us an opportunity to address their concerns and talk about whether aspects of the business rate that have historically been in law ought to be continued with or amended.

There is an entire area of exemption to do with “qualifying industrial hereditament”, including buildings that are

and those that are constructed or adapted for various other uses, including

Therefore, the exemptions in our important amendment No. 6 would affect a surprisingly wide range of activities, including electricity generation, mines and quarrying.

Mr. Gummer: Has my hon. Friend noticed the importance of proposed new subsection (1D)(b)(iv) in respect of the decision that most people have now made that electricity must be generated on a much more local basis? The measure will become much more important than it would previously have been as we begin to disseminate electrical generation. Although many of my hon. Friend’s examples and measures have been historical, this one is important for the future.

Mr. Syms: My right hon. Friend makes a good point. The measures are historical in that most of the legislation that contains them was passed during the last century and has been woven long ago into rating legislation. However, progress and technology changes the impact of measures. My right hon. Friend raises a point that I had not thought about when producing the amendment. In the past electricity has been generated in, and transmitted from, large plants or large substations. There has been exemption from rating legislation, and we are keen to include that in the Bill. However, if microgeneration increases and there are more small generators for people’s homes and for estates, what impact would the amendment have on the properties concerned? Because of the point that my right hon. Friend has raised, I am now having a few concerns about my amendment. A person or business who generates electricity from their own property might be exempted. Can the Minister reassure me that this historic legislation is still relevant, given the changes in the electricity market, such as the move to microgeneration?

Mr. Greg Knight: My hon. Friend is making a good argument. In view of his expertise in this area, which he outlined at the beginning of his speech, can he explain when a property is deemed to be empty? If someone has a storage warehouse that has nothing in it, but which has a windmill fixed to the roof generating electricity, could a tax inspector argue that because electricity is being generated from that building, it is occupied?

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Mr. Syms: A startlingly large number of issues and subjects could be raised as relevant to the amendment. Every intervention throws up an important point that I shall have to reflect on. The generation of electricity is usually exempt. If there are concerns about this area, the Government might have to reconsider it if they do not accept the amendment and we do not then win the vote on it.

There is a wide range of issues and concerns. One needs only to read slowly through the amendment to understand how many people and activities are affected, such as insolvency, ancient monuments, electricity generation, mining and quarrying. The Deeds of Arrangement Act 1914 is a key part of the overall legislation that ought to be exempted. There is concern about these matters because we did not have a consultation, and because people are unsure about how they will be addressed in regulations, as there will soon be a change within the Government. The Opposition are therefore anxious that measures should be included in the Bill.

I meet constituents in my surgery who are faced with legal action; some of them are faced with cases and appeals. They are unsure about what will happen, and they feel angst. The proposed legislation will lead to a wide range of appeals, and it will cost many of our constituents a lot of money in trying to sort out whether they are liable. It is important that we make the situation as clear as possible by including measures in the Bill.

It is important that when the Minister replies to the debate he gives a full explanation of why the Government went for a one-clause Bill that does not address the intricacies of this area of legislation, and why he might wish to reject the detailed, considered, thoughtful and beautifully crafted amendment tabled by Her Majesty’s Opposition. If he were to accept it, that would save a lot of anguish, angst and difficulty for those affected by the proposed legislation. We heard earlier that it will raise £1 billion. That is a lot of money. There will be a considerable impact on many of our constituents. It is important that we have a debate on the range of exemptions, and that we have answers.

Some people say that Parliament no longer matters. I disagree. The debates that we have, the questions that are raised, and the heated and detailed discussion about amendments that we have are an important part of shaping legislation, and the country that we love. Therefore, it is important that we fully debate these aspects of the Bill. If the Government do not accept our important and carefully considered amendment, they should make it clear why not. Our constituents think that it is important that they should know what the situation is.

2 pm

The legislation has been introduced relatively rapidly and it has substantial implications. It will raise a lot of money, but it will also lead to appeals and much case law. It is therefore important to put more information into the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s detailed response to my questions about why the Bill is so limited and why we cannot consider all the important issues it raises. I know that my hon. Friends who wish to speak are determined to stand up for the interests of their constituents. I know that the Minister has listened carefully to what I have said, and I hope that he will also listen carefully to my hon. Friends.

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Mr. Gummer: I rise to speak on two principles. I am very much on the Government’s side on the rating of empty buildings, because we have been too lax in the past. Given our serious housing problems, we need to ensure that all the buildings we have are properly used, because the alternative is to build yet more in unsuitable places. I am therefore in favour of the principle behind the Bill. However, a second principle means that I am worried about the form of the Bill. I am sure that the Minister, for whom I have considerable admiration, will understand when I say that the difficulty with what appears to be easy, environmentally friendly legislation is that it sometimes leads us to move so fast that we do not consider the implications.

The first principle is the rating of empty properties and I agree with the Government’s intention. The second principle is that we should have the debate. A problem that is frequently raised in my surgeries—I am sure that other hon. Members have the same experience—is that bits of Bills have unintended results, with sometimes serious results, because they were never debated properly. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) made the point that we would speak on this occasion especially in defence of the interests of our constituents. I raised, for example, the single issue of the effect of the Bill on microgeneration and the extension from the large generating centre to many smaller ones, which is very much the purpose of the commission that I chair on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition. Without revealing anything new, I can say that we will certainly recommend a radical move towards microgeneration. Even raising the issue in this debate has done some good.

It is possible that the issues can be addressed in the regulations, but that will not provide an opportunity for a debate in this House. I recognise that the issue has not been the biggest draw for the Chamber and the Government Benches are empty apart from those who are here in their official capacity and the ornamental presence of one Back Bencher. He is a substantial figure, but his presence does not suggest that the Labour party is thrilled by this debate. However, on our side of the House, several hon. Members wish to talk in detail about an issue that will affect their constituents.

I mentioned two principles. The first is wanting to have this legislation and the second is wanting to ensure that it is properly debated, because that is what Parliament is about—

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will now address his remarks to the amendment. I have allowed him some leeway on the principles, but I hope that he will now be specific in his comments.

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